The second International Conference onOrthodoxy and Feminism was held at New York's Grand Hyatt Hotel overPresidents Day weekend. For liberal women like me, such conferencesare a thrill even from a distance. Two thousand women attended,double the number at the pioneering event a year before. There werepanel discussions on every controversy facing the religiouscommunity, including the legal status of the agunah (the deserted wife who isdenied divorce), single women and rabbinic ordination. The big newsof the year concerned the newly created post of female "intern" --one who is "EBS" -- everything but smicha (ordination). Next year,organizers promise that the conference will fill Madison SquareGarden.
But when I say that liberals are excited by suchOrthodox events, it is not a simple matter of gloating that the firesof feminism are finally catching on. The traditional movement knownas Modern Orthodoxy has been a steady source of inspiration to thosein Judaism's progressive ranks. The old days of ridiculing religiousbelief are gone. Instead, we eye Modern Orthodox life with jealousy,trying to duplicate the aspects of it we want for ourselves:close-knit community, beliefs worth fighting for, an ambitiousstandard of integrity. Though our interpretations of Torah mightdiffer, on day-to-day Jewish goals, Modern Orthodox and liberals arenot so far apart as you might think.
This week, I spoke to leaders of Shirat Chana, thewomen's prayer group based at B'nai David-Judea in the largelyOrthodox Pico-Robertson area. Shirat Chana is part of the nationalWomen's Tefillah Network, which organized the conference at the GrandHyatt. As the only branch of the network on the West Coast, ShiratChana is a controversial, if noble, experiment within Orthodoxy, anapparently successful melding of two competing goals: inclusion ofwomen and halachic control over their prescribed roles.
"I'm not the least bit interested in feminism,"Alissa Rimmon told me. Rimmon, a nutritionist and mother of fourgirls, was raised in a Conservative home. "I go to Shirat Chanabecause I enjoy the learning. I like to hear women talk aboutbringing prayer and mitzvot into their lives. And I love to havewomen get together and lifting up their voices in song."
The women's group of about 50 participants startedlast May on Shavuot. It meets monthly, during mincha (afternoon)services. (The next meeting will be held on Purim, March 12.) Theypray, read and interpret Torah, sing and offer each other guidance onmatters of spiritual importance, such as visiting the sick. They willcelebrate their first bat mitzvah in a few months. For a generationof women educated in Jewish schools, Shirat Chana provides a chancefor direct participation in prayer service. The women are devoted toit, and proud.
"The basic idea is that we have more educated,skilled and capable Jewish women now than ever before," B'nai David'sRabbi Yosef Kanefsky told me. "And it behooves us in the Orthodoxworld to give them the opportunities for Jewish self-expression. Todo otherwise is capricious."
As mild as Shirat Chana's goals seem, within theB'nai David-Judea community, Shirat Chana was initially suspect as aradical political statement. Kanefsky, 34, moved to Los Angeles fromthe Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where one of the first women'stefillah groups started 20 years ago. He modified and somewhatnarrowed the Riverdale model to fit his new shul.
The women of Shirat Chana are not a minyan --"that's 10 adult men," I was told repeatedly. They are notegalitarian. And they don't meet Shabbat morning, in order that thelarger community's worship stays intact.
However, Rabbi Kanefsky made it clear that evenif, under his halachic interpretation, women reading Torah"technically does not qualify as a public reading," it hasextraordinary benefits.
"The women are connecting to the parchment, theink, the scribal art, the scroll and the music of the Torah in theway we do as Jews," Kanefsky said. "They have more than my approval.It's a very powerful experience, a 'Sinai-like' experience and a verypositive thing, with wonderful benefits and outcomes."
Certainly, he is right. Kanefsky and the ShiratChana women may not concur with me about whether a woman is part of aminyan and, hence, entitled, in the absence of men, to say the"Borchu." But one thing we all agree upon is that for Jews, men andwomen, the experience is primal, and as close to the spiritual sourceas a Jew can get.
"For me, this is not about feminism; it's aboutreading Torah," says Julie Gruenbaum Fax, the group's lay leader. "Iwas in day school my whole life. But I never saw an open sefer Torahuntil four years ago, when I joined a tefillah group. It changes yourrelationship with the tradition when you do it yourself."
Of course, the limits on Shirat Chana wouldn'tsatisfy me. They are not intended to. Modern Orthodoxy has oneunderstanding of Jewish law; progressive Judaism has its own.
But when all the legalisms and rationales areover, we'll both be reading Torah. And how we got there won't matterat all.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish
Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Her e-mailaddress is email@example.com. Join her on Sunday, March 8, when herConversations series at the Skirball Cultural Center continues withessayist and commentator Richard Rodriguez.
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